A tutor sits down for a session in the writing center with an English as a second language (ESL) student. “What are you working on?” the tutor asks. Digging through his backpack, the student says, “Paper for class. I just need help with grammar.” Finding the paper, he places it on the desk. “Fix it..” The student pushes the paper towards the tutor.
Maybe it is for some people, but after a few years of teaching, I'm finding that it's pretty much the same thing for me. I find students highly concerned about grammatical errors when what they really need is a solid thesis statement.
I know you're probably anticipating the part 2 to my "Peer Review" blog post, but I wanted to establish a few things about teaching writing before we jump into teaching our students to teach each other. (AKA: Peer Review)
The first things to consider
As a tutor, I always ask a few questions to the writer before I dig into their writing. My first writing center coordinator always said, "We help writers, not just writing." I have about four questions that I ask before I look at their writing, but the three in the picture below are essential for tutoring, I think. (And for student-teacher conferences.)
Global versus Local concerns
It has been a common belief among tutors, students and faculty that a tutor cannot discuss global concerns before first addressing any and all grammatical errors in second language students’ writing. Gillespie and Lerner (2000) strongly dispute this myth, claiming that most who come into the center asking for grammar help generally need more than that (p.121), including “clarity, focus, and organization” (Blau & Hall, 2002, p. 35).
I learned in my MTESOL that, even though ESL often tend to struggle with English grammar more than native language speakers--- (Let's be honest, the language is crazy!)--- they also need to learn to follow the writing process, which is to (as much as possible) reserve editing exercises for the last stage of the process. When working with ESL writers, we need to read through the grammatical errors and see the ideas that are being presented and help them identify ways to improve their organization. We need to use all the tricks in our bag when working with ESL and not give up and take-over their revision process simply because the grammar sucks. If we do this, we could be teaching the student that they need an editor when the reality is that they can express their ideas in a second language fine and, with practice, get better at English grammar, too. They can become their own editors, just like native English speakers. (It just takes time and persistence.)
Nothing means more to an ESL writer than saying, "I understand your idea in this sentence or paragraph." They need to hear this despite the poor grammar choices. And let's be fair--- the majority of the grammar errors I see at the level I'm teaching are often similar to native speakers anyway: comma splices, fragments, run-ons, verb tense agreement, etc. Yes, prepositions, too, but those shouldn't hinder the reading too much. You can read through them. I'm not saying we shouldn't teach grammar. Of course we should teach grammar! But teach it when they're at the editing stage, and... teach it. Don't just give it to them.
Advice for finding balance
Recently, I gave a mini-workshop to all the writing, grammar and ESL tutors in the tutoring center I coordinate. (Yep, you read that right. I'm the tutor coordinator now, as of January 2017. Boo yeah!). I've attached my powerpoint for that workshop below. Essentially, (and this can apply to student-teacher conferences), when I meet with a student about their writing and all they want help with is grammar help, I slip in these three principles as much as possible:
Even if you're a stickler for grammar, you'll be upset if your student wrote a process essay when you asked for a comparison, right? Telling students this "secret" will help them want to work on their thesis before (or alongside) the grammar.
Even if you know the assignment instructions (heck, sometimes we've written them!), it's a good idea to read them with the student because it shows them how they can find their own answers. They can figure out the things the teacher is most concerned about (and how they'll be graded!). It will help them know what they're "supposed to write." They can identify where they went off topic in their own writing, too.
I strive for student autonomy. I want my students to become independent thinkers and writers. We're not always going to be there to tell them which modal they need, or how to start a new writing project, so it's important we help them learn the process and become self editors. It's a tricky balance, but with practice, you can get better at giving feedback to ESL writers.